By Bob Egelko
February 19, 2015

In a victory for public access to government information, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that California health officials must release complete records of violations of patients’ rights at institutions for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled. Only the patients’ names would be deleted from the records.

The court ruled in favor of the Center for Investigative Reporting, whose articles, first published three years ago, disclosed hundreds of cases of abuses at the state-regulated centers between 2006 and 2011. Some abuses resulted in broken bones and other serious injuries, but few resulted in criminal prosecution.

The news organization had sought records of citations issued to seven institutions by the Department of Public Health since 2002, but the department released records of 55 citations since 2007, with virtually all information blacked out. A document, for example, said one place violated its duty of “protection of clients’ rights.” A copy of the actual citation, obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting from a confidential source, reported that one-third of the patients in a unit at the Sonoma Developmental Center suffered injuries that indicated they had been shocked with Taser guns, the court said.

The center’s stories appeared in The Chronicle in 2012 and 2013.

The department said a 1967 state law requires treatment records to be kept confidential to protect the privacy of mental patients. But the court said a 1973 law was more specific than the 1967 statute, guaranteeing public access to citations for wrongdoing at state long-term care centers, including mental health centers. The law required only the patients’ names be concealed.

The secrecy state officials advocated would “shield long-term care facilities serving mentally ill and developmentally disabled residents from public scrutiny in a manner not applicable to other long-term care facilities,” Justice Goodwin Liu said in the 7-0 ruling.

Liu also said a midway approach, ordered by a state appeals court in 2013, failed to satisfy the law. The appellate panel in Sacramento said officials could comply with both the confidentiality and the public-records laws by releasing details of the institution’s wrongdoing and whether it had committed previous violations, but omitting details of the patient’s condition and history as well as the risk of harm posed by the misconduct.

Failing to require full disclosure, Liu said, would interfere with the law’s “purpose of preventing future violations by making facilities’ past violations publicly known with a high degree of specificity.”

Other media organizations, including the California Newspaper Publishers Association, filed arguments supporting the lawsuit. Duffy Carolan, lawyer for the Center for Investigative Reporting, called the ruling a victory for patients as well as the public.

“Accessing citations is the key to being able to hold the Department of Public Health, the Department of Developmental Services and the facilities accountable,” Carolan said.

The Department of Public Health declined to comment on the ruling.

The case is State Department of Public Health vs. Superior Court, S214679.